HAVE YOU SEEN DIGNITY: AN INTERVIEW WITH MATTHEW RYAN


If you could put a voice to that feeling that overcomes you as the night stumbles to a close and the barlights dim ever so slightly, that last little loving nudge towards the door before the slam back on, each blazing bulb a 120 watt punch in the nose, that voice would be Matthew Ryan’s.

For the better part of 15 years, Ryan has been putting out beautiful records, collections of graceful, hypnotic melodies floating high above a battlefield of love and loss and all of the other wreckage we all leave behind us. Sonically pinpointing Ryan’s music – for those who take solace in the ease of that sort of reductive classification – is nearly impossible, as his compositions are at times stripped nearly bare (the twangy late-night diatribe of “Nails” from Regret Over the Wires), and at others a crash course in sonic layers (the beautifully orchestrated ache of “Never Look Back” from From A Late Night High Rise).

I first came to Matthew Ryan’s music via mixtape, well over a decade ago. A friend had carefully placed a couple of songs from Ryan’s debut album, May Day, among a few of my favorites (Dylan, Westerberg, Earle, Waits, Springsteen). The tracks stood out, not because I didn’t recognize them, but because they were so beautifully written, so well-crafted, that I had to listen multiple times consecutively before I was convinced they weren’t somehow pathworked creations derived from other songs. Since that day, I’ve been an avid and unapologetic Matthew Ryan devotee.

When I learned Ryan would be self-releasing his new album, Dear Lover (available now digitally and through Ryan’s website, with a full-scale physical release scheduled for February 16, 2010), I vowed I would sing the album’s praises in every venue afforded to me. As such, this is the first of a two-part Dear Lover celebration. The following interview with Matthew Ryan was conducted over the course of several days via email, with no planned questions, only those which flowed from the answers Ryan provided as the conversation flowed. What resulted was, I believe, as natural a conversation as two people can have given the circumstances. Part Two, which will follow later this week, will be comprised of my review of Dear Lover. Until then, enjoy discovering, rediscovering, or further discovering Matthew Ryan.

You’ve said you view music cinematically, and I’d agree that Dearl Lover is a very cinematic record in terms of the narrative flow, the way one song leads into another. Were there any specific films on your mind when you were making the record?

A Very Long Engagement and Children of Men were on my mind a lot…

Those are fantastic films. Were they on your mind thematically or was the intent more to make a record that sort of reflected Cuaron and Jeunet’s filmmaking? Both films, in my opinion, had a very “barren” quality about them, the sort of beauty you see in trees completely stripped of their leaves in late November.

Yeah, there’s a barrenness. But also how people (and those characters) get even more human when confronted with mortality. Whether it’s the mortality of their dreams, concepts, beliefs, love or lives. There’s a lot of references lyrically to winter on Dear Lover. Almost a nuclear winter. I wanted the record to be spare. I wanted my voice, the melody and the lyrics to convey the stories. I really tried to create a filmic feel and tempo to the record. The music acts like weather, furniture and place. The record isn’t intended to be apocalyptic by any stretch. It’s just supposed to be completely stripped of anything that obstructs the emotionalism.

It’s these kind of details that excite me about music, film and art in general. Dear Lover was intended to be as pure a record as I could offer where I didn’t burden myself with any concern outside the feeling that the songs were simultaneously exposed and maximized. Because there’s diversity in what songs require, the filmic idea allowed me to go exactly where each song needed to go because I could treat each song like a scene. Funny thing is, that if you listen to City Life (track 1) and The End Of A Ghost Story (the last track), they both occur in the same “location.” But so much has happened in between that the air has changed, the mood has changed. The feel is different. And that’s not unlike the mood or feel of your kitchen before and after an argument that finds resolution. Know what I mean?

Yeah, “stripped of anything that obstructs the emotionalism” is a great way to put it – barren in that way, as well. You mention that you wanted your voice, the melody and the lyrics to convey the stories and this is something that, in my opinion, you’ve always done incredibly well throughout the course of your work, using a song’s melody to convey those things that the lyrics don’t. To me, this is a completely different animal that writing a “hook,” and it’s an aspect of songwriting that really gets overlooked. What was the process for you? How did you figure out what would be spoken and unspoken in these narratives?

For Dear Lover I only wanted to record performances. I’m sure you understand how often tracking becomes about “getting it right” or “good enough.” Those modes are dangerous to the purity of a song. I love choruses. But they are not a priority. Songs can act as descriptive mantras and conversations as well. Many of the songs on Dear Lover are just that. To me the best choruses feel natural like where the wrist becomes the hand. I’ve found that I want above all to feel something as a performer and a listener. That may seem obvious. But that’s where I’m coming from. So with the songs on Dear Lover are moments recorded circling a theme. Hopefully the songs are strong enough to stand alone. I believe they are. But so much of writing and singing and performing is simply allowing yourself to operate on instinct. It takes an absolute trust in the moment. But that is how I approached both the writing and the performing of these songs, which was mostly done on mic. And after something was recorded, I would let it breathe for a bit and then listen to try and understand if my truth, in that moment, was told.

That brings me to something I’ve found is really important to me as a listener: that an album stands both as a complete work in and of itself and as a collection of songs that hold up individually. There is a very clear and tangible theme coursing throughout Dear Lover, and you’ve talked a little bit about the songs dealing with some of what results from a confrontation with mortality. How important is it to you that people hear this album in its entirety? Dear Lover is being released digitally first, so there is a distinct possibility that people will hear one, two, or a handful of tracks “out of context,” so to speak. How do you reckon with that?

It’s a lot to ask of strangers to commit to listen to our work like we do. Particularly when you consider the army of intentions and nature of luck. I mean, that’s essentially what we do whenever we release a record. There’s a fair amount of ego involved in the notion of albums alone. But it’s also a pure and simple willingness, need and desire to communicate. I’ve always hoped to create albums that evoked curiosity from listeners. In the speed of our emerging culture, it seems tougher to engage people for the entire 45 minutes of a record. So that’s why I tried to make each song as pure and radiant as possible, hoping each song could stand on their own for whatever the needs or emotional availability of a listener is or was. But like how scenes in a movie glide into each other, the songs on Dear Lover do the same. It starts in one place and the story pulls it to and through all the elements that arc of a story offers. Hopefully it pulls listeners along. It’s not preachy. It’s trying to tell as honestly as it can the ways that we can get lost, and in turn, at least one version of how we can be found again.

I think that’s really beautifully put, and the honesty of the songs really permeates the performances in a very intimate, visceral way. Dear Lover was recorded and mixed almost entirely at home, which you’ve written about a little bit for Blurt. What prompted the decision to make the record at home and, for the most part, by yourself?

Well first and foremost, recording an entire album alone was something I always wanted to do. I’ve tried before, but my technical skills weren’t quite there yet. Follow the Leader (from From A Late Night High Rise), Jane I Still Feel The Same(from MRVSS) and Return To Me (from Regret Over the Wires) were all, for the most part, recorded in my home studio. But with Dear Lover it was time to live and die by my own talents and abilities. Early in 2009 I read a quote by Joe Strummer. He said essentially that as long as you have others to blame, you’ll never learn nothing. That really stuck with me.

I love the people I’ve played music with, but they could never read my mind. So every record has had beautiful moments, and moments where I felt the sonic story underachieved. So with Dear Lover it was time to dismantle any excuses for failure. I started my own label with my publicist, Monica Hopman. And I made Dear Lover alone at home from beginning to end, I don’t want to have anyone to blame for where I have fallen short. I want to grow my career as much as I can, offer the purest, most beautiful music I’m capable of. And I want to succeed, I see no nobility in being virtually unknown. Because being virtually unknown means you haven’t earned any equity in what you’re doing with you life. I want security, but I also want my dignity. My goal is to prove that that still means something in all the blizzards of our culture.

I still had friends play on the record, but only after I felt I had defined exactly what the song was. And I have to say, in all honesty, Hans Dekline at Sound Bites Dog mastered the absolute hell out of Dear Lover. He made it sound like a million bucks.

I think there’s a real fallacy in the thinking of some that being on an indie label means you get to retain every ounce of your dignity and control. I think both you and I could probably dispel that notion pretty quickly for someone.

Dear Lover sounds fantastic. So now you’ve got this beautiful record that people should hear and, for better or worse, it’s up to you to bring them around to it. In the dizzying blur of the everythingrightnow world we live in, that likely means Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and the like. I’m curious, has there been a point yet where you’ve had to go, “okay, enough self-promotion today.” I know there are days where I have grown really tired of being both the carnival barker and the trapeze artist, y’know?

As a sort of related question – since this interview will be posted rather than printed – how do you feel about the way that arm of promotion has changed in the last decade or so? Do you read many music blogs?

I try not to self-promote. I’m actually anti-marketing in a way. My goal is to engage people and offer context to my music because my hope is that my music inspires them to become advocates. I believe that regardless of what business believes, real success and a real career is built upon an intimacy between what you create and how people welcome what you create into their lives. The best “promotion” is when someone sits down in a car or house somewhere and someone says, “listen to this, you have to hear this song.”  It’s a slow-process, but it’s proving to be the right process for me. My career continues to grow. It’s painfully slow sometimes, but other modes just don’t work for me.

I find myself more interested in what real people are saying in threads and chats about music. I do read some blogs, but honestly, it’s often hard for me because I have a dog in the fight. Frankly, I find some blogs and music sites to be a form of fascism. That being said, I am inspired by anyone anywhere that writes passionately and intelligently about music. I love when I read something so infectious about a band that it builds real curiosity from me. I recently found Glasvegas through a blog. It just felt honest to me. And it turns out, I love their record. That’s when it’s a success. I just wish their was a way to divide the great and inspired writing from the hipster dregs and the spam. We really need three internets: One for smart, emotional critical thinkers; one for proud consumers; and another for hipsters who will cringe and hopefully grin at pictures of themselves and their clever music three years from now.

I think you were one of the first musicians who I remember openly saying, “share my music however you see fit.” It was really refreshing at the time, and continues to be so. I absolutely agree that the best “promotion” is one person to another, “you gotta hear this!” That’s how I found May Day many, many years ago. Somebody put “Irrelevant” and “Railroaded” on a mix tape for me. Are there songs on Dear Lover you feel are especially representative of what you wanted to accomplish? Something you would put on a mixtape for someone?

It’s hard to point one song out on Dear Lover. I worked very hard to make this a collection with real thematic continuity and development. I know listeners will have their favorites, and that’s been the beauty of my career so far. Because different people gravitate to my work for different reason. I’m always amazed that nearly every song I’ve ever written is someone’s favorite for very legitimate reasons.

But if I had to say which songs I would point people to, it would go like this:

We Are Snowmen – Because it’s true poetry and cinema married to a melody. It’s a short story that ends with a beautiful, urgent message in conclusion. It’s also my favorite vocal performance to date. I feel like a real singer on Snowmen.

Your Museum – Similar to Snowmen in that it deals in absolute beauty. It’s one of those songs that’s as beautiful as it is strange. But because of the melody, lyric and air it creates, it doesn’t buckle under being strange for strange’s sake. It sounds like it should, because if you’ve ever been where this song is coming from, you know what a relief it represents. Some of my best writing when it comes to pure hope.

Spark – Because it’s something that maturity has allowed me to embrace without fear. It’s the bravest song on the record aesthetically speaking because the track is a hard Trance track. But thematically for the arc of the record it works perfectly. I know some purist might snub it, but I don’t care. It’s a great song when stripped down. But the song was also sturdy enough to play the role of Apocalypse Now for lovers in the development of Dear Lover’s story. And that amazes me.

The World Is – Because, well, this song is the essence of my message over the years. Some view me as a pessimist or cynic or depressive or too serious. Well, that’s just not true. I’m an eternal optimist with seriously romantic notions of what men and women are capable of. We live in very serious times, and I feel that it’s my job to try provoke heroism and perseverance in myself and those that care to listen. It may upset some to know that rarely, very rarely are my songs about just me and my experience. I know that can be contrary to the mythology that some artists like to build around themselves. But my songs are looking more outward than some might suspect. It’s impossible to separate individuals from the times they live in. By finding beauty and despair in the modern struggle I believe art helps to define a way out or at least to offer some peace with the things that daunt hope and dignity.

Matthew Ryan – American Dirt
Matthew Ryan – Come Home
Matthew Ryan – We Are Snowmen